You’ve heard it all before – don’t eat veggies unless they’re cooked, peel all fruit or toss it in the trash, don’t use ice and avoid meat, eggs, fish and poultry. If you followed every rule of the road, you may just starve to death before you even have a chance to take in the sights. While you definitely need to keep your eyes, and maybe your fruit, peeled in Vietnam, it’s time to throw the rule book out the window and dig in. If not, you’re doing yourself a big disservice. Sure, you can find your cans of Pringles, Oreos and Cokes in convenience stores catering to tourists, but if you don’t dare to venture beyond what you know, you’ll miss out on some of the best cuisine Southeast Asia has to offer.
Food in Vietnam varies greatly by region. There is a vast difference between cultural dishes in the north and south, but they all include a tantalizing variety of fresh vegetables and herbs. So, if you truly want a taste of Vietnam’s famed cuisine, it’s difficult to avoid the fresh, raw foods incorporated into almost every dish. So throw out the rule book, bring the Imodium and dive in!
Tips for Eating in Vietnam:
*Always ask what type of meat is used in a dish. A menu will generally indicate if it’s something like dog, Con Cho, but not if it’s water buffalo instead of beef.
*Eating at most independent street vendors should be avoided, but some larger street establishments are perfectly suitable for a quick bite to eat.
*Order local. If there is a local or regional specialty – order it! It’s much safer to eat a dish they’re accustomed to cooking than trying to eat a western dish they rarely make.
*Follow the crowds. Vietnamese have their favorite restaurants and street bars, and it’s painfully obvious if a place is popular or not. Large crowds gather at good restaurants, so no matter how run-down they may look pull up a seat at the table!
Southern Vietnamese cuisine relies more heavily on fresh fruits, herbs and greens and actually tends to be a bit spicier than food found in the north. Here you’ll find more dishes based in coconut milk, which is rare in other regions of Vietnam. Fresh shredded fruit and vegetable salads drenched in smooth, sweet dressings are a staple. Some, likening more to Thai salads, can be relatively spicy, which is generally counterbalanced by generous helpings of fresh mint.
DaNang and Hoi An are most likely your two centralized tourist destinations, and Hoi An is famous for its Cao Lao, which legend has it was concocted here. It is one of the cheapest and tastiest dishes you’ll dive into in the historic French city. The thick Cao Lau noodles, which liken to Japanese Soba noodles, are what give the dish its name. While there are endless slight variations, most Cao Lau dishes are made with pork, a variety of greens including lettuce and herbs such as mint, fried strips of bread and a small dab of chili paste for flavor.
Hoi An also brags about the creation of yet another specialty dish, Banh Bao Vac, most commonly referred to as White Rose. White Rose is a shrimp dumpling, but its translucent rice paper shell is steamed until it’s soft and chewy. The corners shrink and curl slightly upward creating the look of a flower petal. Usually, the dumplings are topped with crunchy garlic and served with a sweet sauce.
White Rose, Banh Bao Vac, was created by one family in Hoi An that served it during family gatherings. The recipe became so popular, the family began to sell White Rose from a bistro in town. To this day, the recipe is still guarded by the same family that now distributes the dumplings to Hoi An restaurants that include it on their menus.
The north is known for several outstanding dishes, but most notably as the birthplace for the famed Pho (go ahead, pronounce it however you like – even locals go between Fa-a and Furr). Most traditional northern Pho places will serve a variety of Beef Pho, but many restaurants will include chicken or seafood in their Pho options.
Hanoi is famed for its Cha Ca, in fact an entire street in Hanoi is named Cha Ca street. The dish is made from mudfish, snake-headed fish or Hemibargus, the “gourmet” fish used in Cha Ca. The bones are removed and the fish is seasoned before it’s covered with banana leaves and grilled over hot coals. It will be served in a heated platter or oven affixed to your table alone with roasted peanuts, rice noodles, dill, spring onion, coriander and mint as well as shrimp paste or fish sauce. It’s all served separately. The waiter or waitress will bring the peanuts, rice noodles and fish, which is pre-cooked, and a bowl of the herbs and greens will already be on the table. Add everything but the rice noodles into the pot in the middle of the table along with some fish sauce and let simmer. The people of Hanoi tout their well-known saying.. someone must try Cha Ca one in their lifetime before leaving this world. While that may not be entirely true, the dish is absolutely delicious. The dill is dominating, but you can control how much you add.
When in doubt, there are several simple dishes that are sure to satisfy even picky eaters. Simple Com Ga is almost always a sure bet for travelers traversing Vietnam. Com Ga, or chicken rice, is a basic flavorful dish. Chicken is boiled and simmered in its own broth, which is also used to cook the rice – it may also be shortly fried in chicken fat. The result.. one of the most simplistic yet tasty dishes sold at restaurants and street carts across Vietnam. Com Ga is often garnished with more fresh herbs and a dollop of chili paste, which adds a fresh, light flavoring.
One thing is for sure the French influence cannot be missed in Vietnam, and that is equally true when it comes to Vietnamese cuisine. Breads, and more specifically baguettes, are an integral part of many daily meals. While Banh Mi actually refers to the baguette-like bread itself, it has become synonymous with an entire Vietnamese sandwich. Banh Mi is generally stuffed with fresh herbs, greens, carrots and peppers and meat.. usually one of many types of pork. In more Westernized areas, you’ll find Banh Mi stuffed with beef, chicken or seafood. Many tourist-centered restaurants list Banh Mi on their menus, but they can also be picked up from street stalls across the country.
Of course, no trip to Vietnam is complete without their fresh Vietnamese Spring Rolls stuffed with flavorful herbs and veggies. True Vietnamese spring rolls are wrapped in steamed, pliable and gelatinous rice paper; however, fried rolls are also a favorite, but the ingredients can vary greatly.
Safe bets for travelers also include the wonderful fried vegetable wontons, old-fashioned clay pot dishes as well as the traditional Vietnamese pancake, although eating the pancake can be a little tricky without guidance. The thin, fried rice flour and coconut cream shell of the pancake is most likely filled with shrimp, pork and bean sprouts and served with several sheets of thin rice paper. Break off a portion of the pancake shell included and wrap it into the rice paper creating a sort of spring roll.
Where to Eat:
These are our favorite restaurants in each city we visited. They each offered great, fresh meals.
Ho Chi Minh City:
We actually struggled to find restaurants we enjoyed here, and I unfortunately can’t make any recommendations.
Miss Ly’s Cafeteria
TraQue Water Wheel and Herb Garden
Bobby Chinn Restaurant
The Hill Station